Should we allow our 17-year-old to drink at home with us?

Parent Question:
My 16-year-old son (17 in a few weeks) has been dropping hints he wants to start drinking. My husband and I don’t drink that much at all but when we are having a bottle of wine at the weekend or at family events, he always asks to have glass. We have always adopted the line that he can’t drink until he is 18. He also says that lots of kids in his school year are drinking and that it is “no big deal”. He is one of the youngest in his year so that is also a worry.

Rather than saying no all the time, my husband and I were wondering if we should let him drink a little at home with us. That way we know he is safe, can talk about responsibility and we remove the mystery. What do you think?

There is a myth out there that the safest way to teach underage teenagers responsible drinking is to allow them to drink at home in the supervision of their parents. This idea is just a myth, however, and all the evidence indicates the opposite effect. Teenagers who share drinks with their parents or who drink in their parents company are much more likely to develop binge drinking and problem drinking habits. Further, letting groups of underage teenagers drink in the home under supervision of parents does not protect them from drinking in dangerous situations outside the home and in fact, greatly increases the risk of dangerous drinking at other times.

Protecting children
The best way to be protected from drink-related harm is to not drink at all. While this is often presented as a fringe option (usually by the drinks industry), it is worth bearing in mind that 20 per cent of Irish adults don’t drink. In my conversations with teenagers, for each teenager pushing to drink, there are two that don’t particularly want to drink (yet might feel under pressure to do so in our drink laden culture). In addition, the older the age a teen starts drinking the less likelihood of problems. So as a parent, you are right to set clear rules about drinking for your son and to delay him starting as long as possible.

When talking to your son, state your rules and preferences clearly. You might explain that the healthiest choice is for him to not drink at all but that if he does want to drink, you want him to wait until at least he is 18 years old. Some parents strike a deal with teenagers about not drinking until a certain date (18, 19 or when they start college etc) and some even agree a reward if they reach that milestone, such as a trip or even a sum of money. You should also have conversations about the dangers of drinking and how dangers can be reduced by drinking moderately and only in the company of good friends.

Explore peer group influences
When he talks about peers in his school year drinking, listen carefully and encourage him to talk more about this. He may not want to mention names but listening to him will give him a sense of the peer group dynamics and what is happening. You can help him think through the issues by asking questions such as “Is it really no big deal?” or “What are the dangers of drinking at a young age?” It is also important to explore how he can stand up to peer pressure and to make his own decision about drinking.

In studies, teens are often pressured to drink in their peer group and they find it hard to say “no” to this pressure. Unlike simple information campaigns, there is evidence that helping teenagers be assertive and resist peer pressure reduces the likelihood of early drinking and drug taking. So, when you agree the rules about drinking with your son, explore how he can manage peer pressure with questions like, “When you are out, how can you say ‘no’ if someone offers you a drink?”. Rehearsing these challenging social situations will help your son be assertive and make his own choices.

Be a role model as parent
While their peer group, of course, matters, research shows that parental values and behaviours can have a greater impact on their teenagers. Your son will be most influenced by your own attitudes and behaviours around drinking. In addition, teens are more likely to listen to their parents when they maintain warm relationships and keep the lines of communication open on a daily basis. For this reason, prioritising relaxed fun times when you can chat and talk freely with your son is the most important priority as parent.

This way you can tune into what is going on in his world, understand that the risks and concerns are for him and be in the best position to guide him.

For more information on how to keep children and teenagers safe, my 6-part series of articles from the Pressure Points series in The Irish Times.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in April 2022. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is